Who was a naughty Ukrainian then?: With Communism dead, the town of Lvov is celebrating all sorts of famous sons, except the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch sort. Andrew Higgins reports

Copernicus Street, Lvov, is paved with cobblestones, studded with architectural gems - including two palaces and an 18th-century church - and layered with the history of this charming Ukrainian town, a jewel of Habsburg dominion on the most European fringe of what used to be the Soviet Union.

At No 22 stands a particularly fine building, a three-storey mansion with delicate masonry, a sunny courtyard and a plaque on the outside wall. The sign, though, belongs to the immediate and very dreary past. It signals the presence of that most Soviet of institutions, ZHEK, Housing Maintenance Bureau, the bureaucratic cog responsible for residence permits and the countless other pieces of paper that held the Soviet empire together.

Passed over in complete silence is something far more noteworthy: a deep, dark and - for a small but diligent band of initiates - delicious secret. Lurking on Copernicus Street is a claim to international renown every bit as spellbinding as Lvov's Baroque opera house, as seductive as a summer promenade along Freedom (formerly Lenin) Prospekt, as mysteriously passionate as the faith that built St Yura Cathedral up the hill.

On 27 January 27 1836 occurred a singular event. This was the birth of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs, world-class deviant, and the prophet, revered and reviled, of the universal phenomenon known in virtually every language by the same name: 'masochism'.

It is now seven years since Mikhail Gorbachev promised to fill the blank spots of Soviet history. This release from amnesia - and ultimately from empire - has meant that everyone in Lvov now knows how, at the start of the Nazi invasion in 1941, the NKVD, forerunner to the KGB, murdered prisoners en masse in a jail at the corner of Copernicus Street and what used to be Stalin and then Peace Street. Freed from old taboos, Lvov embraced new heroes. Peace Street was renamed after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist previously demonised as a fascist. Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist, has his own street too.

For Sacher-Masoch, though, rehabilitation has been hard going. Sitting unanswered in the Lvov Town Hall is a two-year-old letter from Igor Podolchak, a well-connected hippie-artist whose father used to oversee culture in Lvov for the Communist Party. It asks that Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer, be removed from street signs to make way for Lvov's own world-famous pervert.

Mr Podolchak is not expecting to walk down a Masoch Street any time soon: 'Everyone wants to forget him. This is why our culture is so fragile. We push great people out.'

Ukrainian independence in 1991 forced Lvov, like everywhere in the new country, to look again at the past. The Lvov Historical Museum began a radical overhaul, purging Soviet history and playing up events that buttress Ukraine's sense of statehood. But still squeezed out amid all the shuffling is Sacher-Masoch. Feted instead are obscure contemporaries responsible for compiling a Galician dictionary and other long-forgotten texts.

'We have nothing on him and we are not planning anything either,' the museum's director, Bogdan Tchaikovsky, says firmly. 'We have a different profile.'

As a would-be local hero in a town that prides itself on being the heartland of Ukrainian culture, Sacher-Masoch presents nothing but problems: he wrote in German, was partly Jewish, spent his most creative years in Austria, and devoted his literary career to what has been considered an illness ever since the 19th-century Viennese professor of psychiatry Richard von Krafft-Ebing started labelling such things in Psychopathia Sexualis.

Sacher-Masoch, the son of the local police chief, lived in Lvov when it was known as Lemberg and belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the age of 14 he moved away with his family. He studied in Graz and Prague and went back briefly to Lvov to teach. He married, raised a family of his own, but, according to The Oxford Companion to German Literature, channelled much of his energy into exploring 'the perversion known as masochism'. Collier's Encylopedia speculates that 'his preoccupation with strange erotic pleasures was a reflection of his own abnormal sexual obsessions'.

Celebrated in salons across Europe during his lifetime, Lvov's champion misfit still gets the cold shoulder in his home town. 'His contribution to world culture is, let's say, controversial,' says Anatoly Kopets, the town official responsible for the arts. A cultured man himself, he decorates his office with abstract paintings, but sees little future for Sacher-Masoch: 'If people believe it is in the public interest to erect a monument, then of course we will do our best,' promises Mr Kopets. 'But watching the pace of reform in Ukraine so far, I don't think that will happen any time soon. The mentality of the people will have to change first.'

A first modest step in this direction, however, has just been taken. Thanks to an impecunious literary journal, Vsesvit, Ukrainians can now read snatches of Sacher-Masoch in their own language for the first time. Previously they had to rely on Russian editions. Helping to bring Sacher-Masoch home through a Ukrainian text is Ivan Herassym, an earnest librarian with immensely thick glasses. A graduate in German literature, he had never heard of Sacher-Masoch during his student days: 'The character of his work did not give him much of a chance in our schools, particularly Soviet schools. Teachers told us there was no such thing as sex, but he wrote about nothing but sex.'

The text he chose for translation is one Sacher-Masoch's tamer projects: Women from Galicia, part of a series of largely anthropological studies of the region around Lvov. It touches on sex, says Mr Herassym, the young translator, 'with humour but no special perversions'. More risque is a second translation: The Don Juan from Kolomea. Other works are in the pipeline.

For Igor Podolchak, the 32-year-old painter who wrote to local authorities petitioning for a Masoch Street, the thrill lies less in literature than bizarre behaviour: 'For us he is like a flag. He is our symbol. As an artist I'm interested in marginal things. Sacher-Masoch was a great marginal.'

To keep this banner of nonconformism flying, Mr Podolchak set up an association and gave it a grand name, the International Masoch Fund. Its members are few and dress entirely in black. Their most recent stunt was an exhibition in Kiev shortly before Ukraine's presidential election. It was scheduled for a museum but ended up on the street after officials discovered the contents: three large jars on a stove, one covered by a cloth, a second filled with solid pig fat, a third warmed up to melt the fat and reveal a model of the then president, Leonid Kravchuk.

As well as lobbying for new street signs, Mr Podolchak also wants to erect some sort of monument - not a statue but, as he explains, an 'artistic solution to the monument which would be adequate to the phenomenon and would break stereotypes of monument-memorials embedded in culture'. To this end, the fund - or at least Igor and his friend - launched an international competition ahead of the 100th anniversary of Sacher-Masoch's death in 1895. Suggestions include a giant hologram of Sacher-Masoch and a slide show projected on to clouds. The closing date is next February.

Mr Podolchak is coy about whether his interest in masochism goes beyond just theory: 'This is my own business. As an artist I sometimes act like a masochist, sometimes as a sadist. Art allows you to do anything without legal problems afterwards. I can kill my heroes, violate my heroes.'

There is ample evidence of both in his attic studio, just above his mother's flat in one of Lvov's most prestigious buildings. A naked baby doll hangs from the wall by a string tied around a broken neck. His paintings, skilfully executed and deeply disturbing, bear titles like The Last Orgasm of St Sebastian and tend to feature mutilated bodies.

Such peculiar images do not sit easily with Lvov's role as a centre of traditional culture, a culture with deep roots in the Church and a tenacious loyalty to Ukrainian Greek Catholicism.

Another hurdle blocking Sacher-Masoch's resurrection is bureaucracy. Even the most conventional hero must pass through an obstacle course of red tape and committees before being honoured with a banal statue. The town council must vote and the public must have its say. 'In this seat, I must try to avoid stirring up conflict in society,' says Mr Kopets, the culture bureaucrat. 'I don't think there will be wide support for Sacher-Masoch.'

So far, few Lvovites, even on Copernicus Street, have even heard of their difficult local hero, so well hidden is his secret. And those who have are in no rush to claim him. 'If there is a society for him, there will soon be one against him,' predicts Zinovy Borenko, a young lawyer who works on the ground floor of what used to be Sacher-Masoch's house. He is mildly curious, but worries about complications. He takes down a dog-eared copy of the Ukrainian criminal code from the shelf and checks to make sure masochism is not illegal. It is not. Homosexuality is.

Would Sacher-Masoch himself cheer attempts to revive his name? Perhaps not. He elevated humiliation to an art form, but was mortified when the sexologist Krafft-Ebing coined the term masochism. He worried that he would never live it down. He was right. Taking a different view, though, are his home town fans in Lvov, so far frustrated in their attempts to secure a local tribute. 'The best memorial for Masoch is the term masochism. With this he becomes eternal,' says Mr Podolchak, the artist. 'We cannot imagine a better monument.'

DARWINIST, DEMOCRAT AND DEVIANT

Today Sacher-Masoch is famous only for contributing his name to the catalogue of sexual deviations. But he was a man of diverse interests and achievement: Darwinist, atheist, follower of Schopenhauer, democrat and anti-monarchist, he called for the reform of working conditions and even had proposals for a United States of Europe almost 100 years before the Treaty of Rome. His study of the European Jewish community, Jewish Tales (1878), is still regarded as one of the best ever written.

He wrote two novels in the 1860s that were to establish him on the European scene and lead critics to compare him favourably with Turgenev: Don Juan of Kolomea (1864) and The Separated Wife (1865). The latter featuring an imperious and cruel femme fatale, the often repeated motif that immortalised him.

He desired to create a Northern Venus, an icy beauty in furs to rival her southern counterpart; and so Venus in Furs, the book on which his lasting fame is based, was written and later published in Germany in 1870. The book, although brutal at times, is today regarded as a deeply romantic tale and a classic of European decadent literature, ranking alongside Mirbeau's Torture Garden and Huysman's Against Nature.

In 1873 he married Aurora von Rumelin, who wrote a number of novels under the pseudonym Wanda von Dunajev and is the Wanda of Venus in Furs. He received a great deal of female correspondence as a result of his work, of which he took full advantage.

Apparently Sacher-Masoch died in 1895, shortly after his wife found him in his study, the body of his beloved cat strangled on his lap and his hands covered in blood due to the cat's last desperate struggle. There is still some speculation that he did not die but was whisked away to an asylum where he survived for a further 10 years.

(Photograph omitted)

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